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Transport minister dreams of bullet trains … but commuters want Metrorail to work now

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Civil society and commuter groups tell Fikile Mbalula their demands

Photo of commuters
Members of #UniteBehind on Tuesday morning told Minister of Transport Fikile Mbalula what they want him to do to fix Metrorail. Photo: Ashraf Hendricks
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To see firsthand what commuters face in the Western Cape, Minister of Transport Fikile Mbalula planned to take a train from Khayelitsha to Langa on Tuesday morning. The trip did not go as planned. After a long delay and withfurther delays expected because of two deaths on the Central Line, Mbalula abandoned commuters and used his ministerial escort instead to get to Langa.

Here he engaged with the media and civil society organisations. Numerous organisations approached the minister.

The Western Cape Government said it was “disappointed” he had not engaged with them.

#UNITEBEHIND

Members of #UniteBehind doorstepped Mbalula as soon as he made his way onto the platform at Chris Hani station in Khayelitsha.

“Rail commuters have been let down by empty promises and an absence of clear plans to fix the broken rail system,” the commuter activist group in a statement.

The statement said that deaths occurred due to “overcrowding, failing infrastructure and violent crime”. It said women were being harassed and sexually assaulted. Delays and cancellations were causing workers to lose jobs and learners to lose school time.

The organisation demanded that Mbalula:

  • Declare the commuter rail services a national disaster.
  • Establish a skilled and ethical Board with a commuter representative.
  • Charge all those involved in state capture.
  • Establish a safety and security plan for commuters.
  • Set out a clear six-month plan to bring 2,000 damaged coaches back into operation.
  • Reimburse train tickets after delays.

#UniteBehind said that the Minister had promised a meeting with them.

United Commuters Voice (UCV)

Chairperson of the UCV, Yvonne Dick brought Mbalula’s attention to the long distance Worcester line. Dick explained that people travelling by train from Worcester are very poor, so alternative transport is not an option. She said that a taxi from Belville to Worcester could cost R110 one-way, whereas the train was R23.

Dick said that a train leaving Cape Town at 4:50pm sometimes only reached Worcester the next day after 3am, and then by 4:40am, the same worker had to be back on the train to return to the city.

She said that there is no potable water on the train and only two toilets.

Dick said that a message will come through that commuters should use alternative transport, but in places like this “there is no alternative transport”.

Among UVC’s demands are that the City of Cape Town be pushed to create a bylaw to stop the purchase of stolen cables; and that there be better training for PRASA officials and staff on how to assist commuters.

South African Transport and Allied Workers Union

Provincial secretary South African Transport and Allied Workers Union (SATAWU) Tembela Dakuse expressed concern that only one person had been found accountable for the burning of trains.

Among SATAWU’s demands are that workers, including security and cleaners, not be privatised. The union believes this will save money.

SATAWU also demands the removal of Richard Walker, Western Cape regional head for PRASA, saying he is unable to deal with the parastatal’s structural problems.

Dakuse said trains in wealthier neighbourhoods had better security and services were more reliable. She said that the “black and coloured working class in this province are paying the cost”.

Western Cape Provincial Government

The Western Cape Provincial Government issued a statement saying that it was pleased with the Minister’s investigation into the commuter rail service, but it “disappointed that he did not seek to engage provincial leadership during his visit”.

In the statement, Premier Alan Winde said that it was important that Mbalula experience the frustration of commuters, however, he would “go back to being driven in his ministerial vehicle” while commuters continued to face delays.

He said building partnerships across government was “essential to ensuring effective service delivery”.

Minister wants bullet trains

Mbalula told Parliament during the State of the Nation (SONA) debate, on Tuesday: “I have set out a set of urgent interventions needed to return the Central Line service into an efficient, trusted and safe service.”.

Echoing President Cyril Ramaphosa in SONA, Mbalula spilled more words on a vision of high-speed trains connecting Gauteng to Cape Town and elsewhere than he did on his Metrorail experience earlier that morning.

“High Speed Rail could be feasible – in this sixth administration we shall commission a full feasibility study and financing models to achieve this collective dream.

“High Speed Rail is an economic stimulant, it is a new cities and towns creator, it is an enabler and multiplier, it is an important tool towards a cleaner air strategy and indeed in speeding up our intended transitioning from road to rail and from air to rail … President, no South African should have a problem with an introduction of rail network to Musina and Buffalo City as you said in your address,” he said.

“PRASA will be back on track,” he told the joint sitting of Parliament in the National Assembly.

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